With Looper, Johnson again channels disparate elements, combining the philosophical themes of the best time travel films with action sequences big enough to make Michael Bay blush. It’s Die Hard (1998) meets Primer (2004), with a healthy dose of dystopian future.
Rian Johnson’s Looper is a highly stylized, hyper-violent, take on the time travel genre that stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the same hit-man at different ages. Gordon-Levitt previously worked with Johnson in the director’s first feature, Brick (2005). A standout low-budget independent, Brick was classic film noir transposed to the landscape of the modern American high school. With Looper, Johnson again channels disparate elements, combining the philosophical themes of the best time travel films with action sequences big enough to make Michael Bay blush. It’s Die Hard (1998) meets Primer (2004), with a healthy dose of dystopian future. The screenplay (also by Johnson) subscribes to a multiverse theory of reality (i.e. the theory that multiple possible universes exist in tandem), allowing for two possible versions of the same character to exist simultaneously.
The film opens in Kansas in 2044, with the younger Joseph Simmons (Gordon-Levitt) explaining his job as a looper for the mafia. Because of the way bodies are tracked in the future of 2074, it has become impossible to commit murder undetected. To bypass this technology, the mafia uses time travel to send their enemies back to 2044, where they are immediately murdered and disposed of by loopers. When the mafia wants to end their loopers’ contracts they send the older version of the looper back to be killed by their younger self. They call this, “closing the loop.” Why would anyone agree to do the job? It pays extremely well, allowing the loopers to live out rockstar lifestyles in a future of extreme economic depression. All goes to plan until one of Simmons’ kills shows up; and, he immediately recognizes the man in front of him as his future self (Bruce Willis). His pausing allows the older Simmons to get away, and a chase ensues.
The film features some excellent supporting roles. Paul Dano plays Simmons fellow looper, Seth, with a kind of slimy-ness that really showcases another facet of his range. He’s particularly good when the tables turn on him; and, he’s forced to grovel for help. Jeff Daniels also shows up in a rare villainous turn as Simmons’ boss, Abe. Abe is from 2074, sent back by the future bosses to manage the loopers. Daniels plays the gangster with a quiet demeanor that subtly hints at the violence of which he’s capable. He prefers intimidation to force, but uses the latter when needed. One particularly disturbing scene involves the use of a hammer.
Johnson’s vision of the future is informed by present realities like gas shortages, economic instability, and China’s growth into a world power. Looper offers a bleak outlook.
Critic Pauline Kael, writing about Blade Runner (1982), noted that the film “has it’s own look, and a visionary science fiction movie with its own look can’t be ignored–it has its place in film history.” Indeed, the same quote could be applied to Looper. Johnson’s vision of the future is informed by present realities like gas shortages, economic instability, and China’s growth into a world power. Looper offers a bleak outlook. America is economically crippled in 2044. The majority of citizens openly beg in the streets. The gap between rich and poor has widened. Gas tanks are equipped with a kind of adapter that appears to power the engine sans fossil fuel. Johnson’s vision is rich, original, and deserving of praise. For my money, these subtle details were the most intriguing aspects of Looper.
The film lost its steam for me in the third act. Without giving too much away, a plot line involving telekinesis is introduced fairly late in the story, and feels a bit forced. Also, the climax aims for a hopeful tone–but, given the multiverse reality in which the film exists, the conclusion we are shown is really just one possible universe, which forces us to assume that the less positive outcome still exists in a different thread of time. And that knowledge undermines the impact of the climactic scene’s heroism. In a wonderful sequence that takes place in a diner, the older Simmons (Willis) tells younger Simmons (Gordon-Levitt) that there’s no point in discussing the paradoxes of time travel–the conversation just goes round and round, never getting anywhere. The scene’s subtext reveals Johnson’s advice to his audience: don’t try to dissect the logic–just enjoy the ride.
Perhaps I am thinking too much about those paradoxes, but there they are.